About etiquetteer.com

Etiquetteer is known socially as Robert B. Dimmick. A native of Louisiana, Mr. Dimmick emigrated North for education, finally settling in that Athens of America, Boston, Massachusetts.

Mr. Dimmick spent his childhood attending weddings, reading Emily Post’s Etiquette, and being teased and taunted by other children for minding his mother, taking everything the preacher said seriously, and generally being a Good Boy. This ultimately led to an aversion to organized sports, television, and popular culture in general, and definite opinions about everything from restaurant dining to wedding dresses to historic preservation. Mr. Dimmick believes in the sartorial legacy of President Harry S Truman, getting out of the way of oncoming traffic quickly, and the tasteful expression of free speech. He is, all too often, willing to express an opinion on just about anything.

By day, Mr. Dimmick plans class reunions for one of those great big universities. By night he enjoys club openings, dinner parties, memoirs of the Fabulous, yoga, the music of the American songbook, and spirited conversation with friends. He invites you to behave with Perfect Propriety whether you want to or not.



 

A Loss of Temper, Vol. 13, Issue 42

April 23rd, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Etiquetteer, of course, is the soul of Perfect Propriety, but it comes at a price: daily battle with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much, who carries on either like a Rank Parvenu or the most Impatient Curmudgeon. Recently Etiquetteer lost a battle, and That Mr. Dimmick is still paying the price. Etiquetteer is now breaking out of the prison into which That Mr. Dimmick has cast him to tell the story.

“Hell,” as Sartre famously observed in his play No Exit, “is other people.” Perfect Propriety is either the key to the exit or a useful blindfold. It is an essential tool in daily life, because there will always be people who don’t care at all about how they impact others. Always. This is why we have etiquette, to make dealing with Those People easier and less demeaning for ourselves.

It brings us to a bus with two loud children and an angry mother. While That Mr. Dimmick was speaking quietly with a friend near the back of the bus, two little girls and two adult women with them boarded at the next stop. The little girls ran to the back row, immediately behind That Mr. Dimmick, and continued their conversation VERY loudly, with what one would call Outside Voices. Really, it became nearly impossible to hear one’s own conversation. And after a few minutes of this, in a fit of impatience, That Mr. Dimmick burst out with “Young ladies, ENOUGH!” There was no thought about results or consequences, just a complete inability to bear one more moment.

Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother has always said “When you lose your temper, you lose your point.” And alas for That Mr. Dimmick, Dear Mother was once again correct. That Outburst of Temper roused the Maternal Wrath of the mother sitting closest, who immediately challenged any interference. She actually said “This is not a library!” and suggested that we move! She should have been apologizing for the fact that those children were making a public nuisance. (That Mr. Dimmick was so astonished by her that he was unable to respond “It’s not a playground either! Why aren’t you teaching those girls to use their inside voices?! You’re a bad mother if you don’t care!”)

Of course Etiquetteer understood why she reacted that way; no one likes to be called out publicly. Etiquetteer would never have addressed misbehaving children directly. One speaks to the parents or guardians. Etiquetteer would have turned to the mother and asked “Would you please ask the young ladies to use their inside voices? They probably aren’t considering how loud they are inside.” That mother probably would still have suggested Etiquetteer move to another seat, but at least Etiquetteer would be able to sleep nights, secure in the knowledge of having acted with Perfect Propriety. Because That Mr. Dimmick no longer had a leg to stand on. You can’t go about complaining about the behavior of others if your own behavior is cause for concern.

Long story short, the bad behavior of others never excuses one’s own bad behavior. But this story does raise other questions:

Why are we not all of us taught about consideration for others? Why are so many people standing in the doorway of the subway or bus, blocking the people who need to get by them? Why are so many people talking or texting (or eating!) through live performances in theatres, cinemas, and concert halls? Why are so many people blasting music so loudly through their headphones and earbuds that the lyrics are distinctly heard outside? Why are so many people standing two abreast on the escalator, preventing others from moving past them? Why are so many people eager to tell their friends how to spend their money on them with elaborate gift registries, or even bald requests for cash instead?

Why have we stopped caring about the impact that we have on others in daily life, whether friends or strangers?

That’s the question that keeps Etiquetteer awake at night, and there just doesn’t seem to be a Perfectly Proper answer.


“No Problem” Is a Problem, Vol. 13, Issue 41

March 26th, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Etiquetteer has a problem with “No problem.” Especially as a response to “Thank you!” and most especially when uttered by customer service personnel. Why? Because the idea that serving a customer might create problems (even on the occasions when they do) is not something that should be communicated to the customer. When Etiquetteer thanks the waiter for serving dinner and hears “No problem!” back, Etiquetteer thinks “Well I hope not. That’s your job!”

A courteous, smiling “You’re welcome” leaves a Much Better Impression.


The Common Core of Etiquette, Vol. 13, Issue 40

March 25th, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Last week Etiquetteer was pleased to speak to a group of MIT student ambassadors, and among the many questions afterward came one from a student who had read a manners manual from the late 1890s. “What of that etiquette is still relevant today?” Etiquetteer’s reply could be distilled to “Consideration of others.” The etiquette of calling cards, for instance, is all but irrelevant now, but it’s still necessary to know how to respond to a kindness (with a Lovely Note), an invitation (with a Timely and Definite Response), and to tragedy (with a Sincere Offer of Assistance).

Coincidentally, not long after this pleasant interchange, Etiquetteer stumbled upon Emily Post’s chapter on “The Fundamentals of Good Behavior” from her 1922 edition of Etiquette. The core values of this document - Financial Honor, Consistency in Behavior, and above all Discretion - should remain guides for all of us. Rereading it, Etiquetteer was by turns relieved, alarmed, and saddened by how far we’ve come as a civilization since 1922.

For instance, “A gentleman never takes advantage of a woman in a business dealing . . . ” does not take into account the exponential rise of women in business, nor their considerable abilities, like many male counterparts, to seize the advantage when offered. In other words, while Chivalry may have retired from the board room, the merger of Gender Equity and Mutual Respect is supposed to have taken its place.

In these days of social media and the sometimes aggressive assembly of “connections,” it is worth revisiting Mrs. Post’s injunction “The born gentleman avoids the mention of names exactly as he avoids the mention of what things cost; both are an abomination to his soul.” That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much should probably stop tagging so many people in social media status updates . . .

Mrs. Post writes “A man is a cad who tells anyone, no matter who, what his wife told him in confidence, or describes what she looks like in her bedroom. To impart details of her beauty is scarcely better than to publish her blemishes; to do either is unspeakable.” Nowadays, alas! This sentence could be rewritten “A man is a cad who takes advantage of a lady by creating revenge porn with her nude images and ruining her reputation.”

Another area where Mrs. Post gets it right and we frequently don’t is in the way we treat service personnel. “When you see a woman in silks and sables and diamonds speak to a little errand girl or a footman or a scullery maid as though they were the dirt under her feet, you may be sure of one thing; she hasn’t come a very long way from the ground herself.” And as Etiquetteer pointed out earlier in a column on restaurant tipping, Americans are known to treat service personnel poorly. Etiquetteer is still angered and heartbroken by the stories from waiters and waitresses in Sundays Are the Worst, and needs this Bad Behavior to stop.

Thinking about what makes Perfectly Proper Conversation, Mrs. Post admonished “Notwithstanding the advertisements in the most dignified magazines, a discussion of underwear and toilet articles and their merit or their use, is unpleasant in polite conversation.” Think of nowadays, when Reference to Bodily Function is bandied about so casually! Etiquetteer does not need to know why you’re going to the restroom. The only Perfectly Proper reason would be to wash your hands. (And you’d better, too, whatever else you’re doing in there that you shouldn’t be talking about.)

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that etiquette books get written, and etiquette advisors like Etiquetteer have vocations, because people have always, and will always, behave thoughtlessly and without a care for how their actions affect others. The common core of Mrs. Post’s guidelines is awareness of the impact our behavior has on other people. That remains even truer today, when fewer people have been taught consideration for others from the beginning.


Reacting to Offensive Comments, Vol. 13, Issue 39

March 23rd, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Dear Etiquetteer:

What do you say when someone makes inappropriate comments without creating a scene?

Dear Etiquetteer:

How does one politely yet emphatically interrupt conversation to deal with other participants who have dropped rude, crass, ignorant, racist or homophobic remarks?

Dear Offended Auditor(s):

We are blessed to live in a land that affords Freedom of Speech. The surprising advantage to this is learning how hateful people can be through what they say, which gives you the freedom to avoid them ever afterward. Etiquetteer wishes dearly that the memory of who said “I think if a man has opinions like that he should keep them to himself” in what movie would come back, but it is nevertheless good advice when one has Controversial Opinions about Other People, Beliefs, Practices, Behaviors, or Places.

Before getting involved, it’s very important that you ask yourself honestly what outcome you expect. Do you expect to change this person’s point of view? Do you want to warn them that someone who belongs to one of the groups being disparaged is nearby and could be offended? Do you want merely to change the topic? Do you just want to explain why your beliefs are different? Do you want to be sure they know that you think they are a Bad Person Unfit for Polite Society? Because let Etiquetteer tell you, if the answer to that last question is Yes, the most Perfectly Proper thing for you to do is to Remove Yourself from that person at once. Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother wisely said “When you lose your temper, you lose your point.” If you let anger overmaster you, you defend your point of view poorly.

As a general rule, it is safest not to respond to total strangers. With acquaintances and friends, there is slightly more leeway to offer Gentle Correction. With family . . . well, family dynamics are most challenging. While bound together by blood, differences in generation, region, and education do make themselves felt. Proceed with caution.

Let’s establish the situation, which affects in part if and how you should react:

  • Are you in public, and are the offenders total strangers? If so, say nothing. That will surely create a scene.
  • Is this person just a Provocative Contrarian waving a red cape at a bull for his or her own entertainment? Stay away. You will always lose an argument with such people, who live only to humiliate others.
  • Are you a guest at a party overhearing a stranger? Say nothing, or speak to your host or hostess quietly.
  • Are you in a group of friends or acquaintances enjoying conversation? If it’s necessary to prevent a scene, take the person aside - “Adolf, there’s something I particularly want to ask you about” - and suggest Ever So Gently that they’re making a bad impression and that more neutral topics are better for the occasion.
  • Are you in your own home or are you the host of a gathering at which these remarks are made? If so, it may be necessary for you to say a Quiet Word that the topic in question is forbidden in your house.

Irrepressible Elsa Maxwell recorded a Perfectly Proper example of the latter in her book I Married the World when the woman most known to History as Consuelo Vanderbilt had to react to an insult at her dinner table. It seems that the Earl of Carnarvon, her houseguest along with La Maxwell, suddenly popped out with “the French were a lot of frogs, anyway” in a discussion about postwar Europe. Alas for him, he had forgotten that his hostess was no longer Duchess of Marlborough but had been Madame Jacques Balsan for several years! La Maxwell related: “As Madame Balsan is married to a Frenchman and devoted to France the fat was in the fire. Icily, firmly and irrevocably the ultimatum was delivered to [the Earl]: ‘Will you kindly leave my table and my house this instant,’ Mme. Balsan demanded. Whereupon, his dinner half eaten, he left the room, went upstairs and had his bags packed and left the house.’”* Which just goes to show that it isn’t Perfectly Proper to bite the hand that feeds you. Etiquetteer at least gives the Earl credit for recognizing his Stupendous Blunder and actually leaving the house without trying to have a Tedious Discussion about Feelings.

Etiquetteer will conclude by observing that sometimes Icy Silence communicates more effectively than any words.

Dear Etiquetteer:

When a friends posts something on a social network that you find offensive, is it proper to say anything? Is it simply proper to tell them they have offended you and why?

Dear Internetworked:

It is astonishing how people will toss off the most offensive comments online that they’d at least think twice about before uttering in person. To avoid making a scene (see above), Etiquetteer prefers sending a private message via the Social Media Being Used to explain, in as neutral and brief a way as possible, how what was communicated offended you. Depending on the Offensive Comment, you might include the possibility that they weren’t aware their comment could be intepreted in an offensive way. You might also encourage them to delete it. But a flame war should be avoided.

Etiquetteer recommends NOT leaving a comment under the offensive post, which would be likely to prompt a public Airing of Dirty Laundry. Your goal is not to embarrass the other person (Etiquetteer hopes) but to express your own offense.

* Elsa Maxwell, quoted in Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, but Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, p. 479.


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